MSW Management

A Letter from China

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China’s Ministry of Commerce has, through its World Trade Organization (WTO) Notification and Enquiry Center, responded to comments from several WTO members including the US regarding the impact of National Sword. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) posted the letter from China on its website.

The letter begins: “We appreciate the United States’ attention to and comments on China’s Environmental Control Standards for Imported Solid Wastes as Raw Materials. China would like to reiterate that solid wastes are different from raw materials in general and inherently pollutive. Solid waste disposal is a common environmental problem faced by all countries around the world. Apart from improving the solid waste disposal scheme at home, China, as a developing country with the largest population, must make the inevitable choice of restricting and prohibiting solid waste imports in order to protect its eco-environment safety and population health.”

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Chinese officials seemed to display a clear understanding of the effects their waste ban is having on the US and other markets. They referred to why the decision was made to delay the implementation of the 0.5% contamination limit, which was to allow more time for nations to react. The officials recognized the difference between waste and scrap. They pointed out that if the US continues the principles of disposal to the nearest, this could be a time of economic opportunity, “We believe that our recently promulgated measures will lead to increasing quantities of solid wastes generated in the United States to be kept within the borders of the United States, thereby spurring a new round of investment in the relevant processing industries. Apart from solving environmental problems faced by both countries, this could also bring more employment opportunities to the US recycling industry and create a win-win situation.”

Unfortunately, the fallout from the China Waste Ban continues to be dealt with. The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) recently gave another update on the impact the restrictions are having on our recycling programs.   

SWANA’s Executive Director and CEO David Biderman says, “The deepening impact of China’s waste import restrictions is being felt in a growing number of communities. In addition to the ban on certain materials and the new stringent contamination standard, China temporarily halted pre-shipment inspections in May. Combined with new limitations by other Asian countries receiving more recyclables from the U.S., the result has been lower prices and continued uncertainty about the long-term sustainability of recycling programs. SWANA feels it is important to continue to update key stakeholders on this evolving situation.”

In response to China’s waste import restrictions, SWANA has established a Recycling Task Force made up of industry and municipal leaders, it advocates on Capitol Hill for recycling-related funding in the Infrastructure bill, it’s consulting with associations and other organizations that support recycling, and it is developing a China Waste Import Restrictions webpage of resources.

Susan Robinson is the Director for Federal Affairs for Waste Management and a member of SWANA’s Recycling Task Force. She says, “For the past several decades, China has served as the end-market for roughly a third of the world’s recyclables, and its new policy banning mixed plastics and mixed paper has created a global over-supply of paper on the world market. This supply and demand imbalance, combined with China’s new 0.5 percent contamination standard, has increased the quality requirements for recyclables, whether they are moving to domestic markets or to other alternative markets. Until new markets develop, stakeholders will need to work together to develop solutions that will support our local recycling programs.”

In an effort to improve the quality of the recycling stream, ISRI has updated the “Guidelines for Paper Stock” in its Scrap Specifications Circular. It now clearly lists items that are considered “Prohibitive Materials” and should not be included in the recycling stream, and for the first time, “Zero Tolerance” is also defined.

ISRI President Robin Wiener says, “The paper recycling industry, through ongoing work with municipalities and other stakeholders, has made it clear that contamination of the recycling stream is unacceptable. Instituting clearer guidelines of what is—and is not—acceptable is a strong step toward improving quality throughout the recycling stream. It is important that this movement forward continues in concert with public education, investments in infrastructure, better efforts to design consumer products with recycling in mind, and a commitment by all parties to continue to work together.”

The Circular defines “Prohibitive Materials” as any materials which by their presence in a packing of paper stock, in excess of the amount allowed, will make the pack unusable as the grade specified, or any materials that may be damaging to equipment.

“Zero Tolerance” is defined as any material that contains any amount of Medical, Organic, Food Waste, Hazardous, Poisonous, Radioactive or Toxic waste, and other harmful substances or liquids.

What course of action do you propose?

Should we keep asking China to give us a break and ease up on its restrictions?

Should we gracefully part ways with China and start building what we need to handle our own recycling stream? MSW_bug_web

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  1. We should gracefully part ways with China and start building what we need to handle our own recycling stream. Not only will this solution provide a more sustainable process long term, it will reduce the carbon footprint of recycling. Albeit, this will not be a short or easy process because it will not stop at just building mills or other facilities to process the paper and plastic into reusable material it will need to include developing end users in the US or at least on the North American Continent because that is China’s next obvious step, use their own material to supply their factories.

  2. We should use this as an opportunity to upgrade our recycling systems from recovery through manufacturing. The federal infrastructure program promised by congress and the President is an appropriate place to show China and the world that the United States will take care of its own problems and that it will be a competitor in manufactured goods going forward.

  3. I agree with Lance and Alford’s comments on creating more recycling systems. To begin that process, the State and Federal regulatory agencies need to loosen their noose of regulations so that companies will find it feasible to build facilities to handle our materials. We all have to live here, so protecting or environment is important, but also knowing when to stop regulation levels is important. Here is a new concept, design regulations that answer the question, “What is the economic impact if we implement this regulation?” Just because it sounds good on a lawmakers legal pad, does not make it good for “We the People”.

  4. Unfortunately, the US waste management companies took the easy way out by exporting reusable materials instead of creating a closed loop cradle to grave approach to turn our own recyclable materials into marketable materials. Now we are more than 40 years behind and need to catch up quickly. Can it be done? Only if those advocates of MAGA can summon the political will and necessary resources to stay even with China in this industry.

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